If you follow college basketball even a little, you know that the Notre Dame men’s basketball team won the Maui Classic tournament.
Early season tournaments aren’t the biggest deal in the world, not compared to the NCAA Tournament or the ACC Tournament; but it’s a challenging format that is a good test of mettle as well as ability. Three games in three days is a grind.
The Maui tournament has been the most prestigious of the November tournaments for a long time. It always has a strong field. The 2017 field included Marquette, LSU, Michigan, Cal, Virginia Commonwealth, Chaminade (the host school), #6 Wichita State, and #13 Notre Dame.
The Irish beat Chaminade easily in game one while LSU beat Michigan. Too bad. Beating Michigan would have been more fun, but we had to settle for a 39-point beat-down of LSU. Wichita State won the other side of the bracket to create a really good championship match-up.
Rankings are fairly meaningless at this time of the season, so I was a little skeptical of WSU’s #6; but now that I have seen the Shockers play, I believe it’s a legitimate top 10 team. The defense was especially impressive. It’s a hardnosed, athletic team with a lot of juniors and seniors in the playing rotation.
The Irish were a victim of that defense in the first half. They didn’t get good looks at outside shots. They only took 5 three pointers and made only one. They were 10-22 on 2-point shots which is neither good nor terrible.
Wichita State looked like the fresher team, perhaps because it had an extra half day of rest or perhaps because making more shots makes a team look fresher. Regardless, the Irish trailed by 14 points at halftime.
“We had a hard time figuring out what to do offensively against a great defensive team in Wichita State in the first half,” Mike Brey said at his Tuesday press conference.
The answer was to attack the basket in the second half, to metaphorically throw a punch instead of taking one. If the players weren’t going to make outside shots, at least they could try to out-tough WSU. They chipped away at the lead throughout the half and found themselves close at the end. They shot a little better, 3-7 from three point distance; but they made 12-17 on two point shots by attacking the basket more.
“The way he (Martin Geben) and Bonzie (Colson) were playing physically in the second half, was really encouraging,” Brey said. “The two of them were really physical in the post.”
Pat Connaughton talked about “winning plays” incessantly when he was at Notre Dame. Playing well for 40 minutes was important to him, but winning plays were the opportunities that presented themselves with the game in doubt. Making winning plays was a habit that required head and heart as much as ability. Winning plays make or break seasons.
Let’s count the winning plays in the final minute of the championship game.
0:34 – Wichita State’s Landry Shamet made a short jumper to give his team a 66-63 lead.
0:19 – Colson missed a three and the ball went out of bounds. WSU ball. The game should be decided by WSU’s ability to make free throws.
0:17 – Instead, Matt Farrell took the in-bounds pass away from the WSU player and fed Colson for a short shot. WSU lead cut to 66-65. Winning play count – 1.
0:13 – ND fouled WSU’s Austin Reaves to stop the clock and send him to the line.
0:13 (part 2) – Reaves missed the front end of one-and-one. Colson got the rebound and passed to Farrell. Farrell drove to the basket but had his shot blocked. WSU’s center got the rebound; but Rex Pflueger reached in, cleanly grabbed a share of possession, and caused a whistle for a held ball. The possession arrow favored the Irish. One more chance. Winning play count – 2.
0:03 – In the timeout huddle, Brey talked the team through an in-bounds play it hadn’t practiced recently because he knew that WSU’s defense would do whatever was necessary to keep Colson and Farrell, from getting the ball. They were the first two options. The third option was Geben cutting down the lane after setting two screens, first for Farrell and then a second screen for Colson. If when WSU’s guys tried to play through the screens, Geben would be able to cut to the basket. That’s exactly what happened. Pflueger patiently waited for the play to unfold and got the ball to Geben. The WSU defender fouled to prevent a dunk. Winning play count – 3.
0:02 – Geben went to the line and made both free throws. The Irish led 67-66. Winning play count – 4.
0:02 – Time for a last ditch effort by WSU. Pfleuger was assigned to WSU’s best shooter, Conner Frankamp, to make sure he didn’t get the ball with a running start; but instead, Frankamp set a baseline screen to get the passer a clean look at a throw to Shamet at half court. As soon as Pflueger saw the screen, he ran to midcourt and stole the ball as soon as Shamet caught it. He traversed roughly a third of the court as quickly as a thrown ball traveled the same distance. Winning play count – 5.
Several people made important plays in that last minute; but if you’re looking for tough, start with Pflueger. I don’t know how a guy can do more in three and a half seconds to help win a game than Pflueger did Wednesday night.
- He tied up the WSU center on the rebound to get the ball back for ND.
- He patiently waited for the third option to come open and made a good pass. Timeout wasn’t an option. He had to remain calm in the moment.
- He made the final steal to prevent a last second desperation shot.
“The guy is unbelievable, one of the great winners ever” Brey said. “The man just wants to win, and man did he make every little play in the last 20 seconds.”It isn’t just Pflueger. There isn’t a soft player in the nine man playing rotation. “Bonzie and Matt Farrell were born chip-on-the-shoulder guys” Brey said. “When you were the 104th rated recruit in Bonzie and not even in the top 200 in Matt, there’s always that chip.”
That’s this team. Nobody is entitled. They come from the poor side of the basketball tracks, and they want to show the blue bloods how tough they are. I don’t know if this is a championship team. There are plenty of contenders, and they’re tough too; but I’m confident this team will not underperform its talent.
The Irish will play #2 Michigan State in East Lansing on Thursday. The Spartans should win. Tom Izzo is an outstanding coach, and this appears to be his most talented team. The TeamRankings stats site gives the Irish a 35% chance to win. Maybe those odds are statistically sound, but I expect the Irish to acquit themselves quite well; and if the game is on the line, they will make the winning plays.
Brey seems to agree. “This is an older group,” he said. “They expect a lot of themselves. They’ve been in big games, and they’ve delivered in big games. I’m excited about taking them north on Thursday. It’s another let it rip, nothing to lose kind of night.
“If we stay true to what we do for 40 minutes, and I think we have the ability to do that because we’re smart, we know who we are, we’re tough… we’re going to be in it. The full 40 minutes is the full 40 minutes, and I’m really pleased with how our group understood that and stayed in character (in Maui). That’s going to put you in game situations on the road on Thursday.”
Then the team that makes winning plays will prevail.
The Playing Rotation
Have you ever wondered how Brey decides on a playing rotation? I asked about the process and got an interesting stream of consciousness, first about getting playing time for Elijah Burns and John Mooney and then about developing talented freshman DJ Harvey’s role.
“What we try to do is kind of get a feel for what the rotation is going to be sooner rather than later,” Brey said. “I was freely throwing a lot of the big guys in there, rotating them through. I wanted Johnny and Elijah to feel that I believed in them. I felt getting them in the game, playing them in the first half… I just wanted them to feel good about it.
“One of the things that’s interesting with our rotation right now is we substitute first for Marty because he’ll get winded first,” Brey continued. “Then you’re going down the line with some other big guys, but I’m torn a little bit. Marty’s playing so well I may need to get him back in there after a quick rest instead of him sitting there for six or seven minutes. I think that’s going to be a night-to-night feel for the game.
“I’m really pleased with Elijah and Johnny. They’re our future after this year. I thought they played poised and gave us good energy as did DJ in Maui.”
Mooney and Burns have been in the program. They are part of the team’s culture. They know what kinds of work habits are expected. To Brey, it’s all about instilling confidence, but it’s different for Harvey. Harvey is gifted, but he needed to learn the habits necessary to succeed at the major college level.
“I’ve been very hard on him at times early in the preseason when he hasn’t been focused or he’s over-dribbled or he’s been sloppy,” Brey said. “I just thought he needed to be shocked some days. My standard for him is really high because he’s unbelievably gifted. I’ve been hard on him because I know how much we need him. The other guys have been the ones to hug him and teach him and make him feel good.
“Where he’s made great progress is not over-dribbling. He’s learned to move without it (the ball), get through screens, and cut. There’s where he’s made great progress.”
The long way of saying that player development is more art than science.